State Street Ballet Premieres American Legends
by Elizabeth Schwyzer
Fostering the American spirit has always been central to State Street Ballet’s mission. Since its conception in 1993, Southern California’s only fully professional ballet company has prided itself on bringing a distinctly American approach to what is traditionally a Russian, French, and Italian art form. “There’s a restlessness about the American spirit,” said SSB Artistic Director Rodney Gustafson. “A youthfulness, and a desire to grow. I like to bring that to making dance — to take ballet in a new direction. Everything I do is kind of edgy.”
It’s fitting, then, that his youthful company of 18 dancers steps away from classical ballet tradition in its new show, American Legends, premiering at the Lobero this weekend. Conceived for the reopening of the Granada Theatre, originally scheduled for this September, Legends is a celebration of the best of American culture.
As far as Gustafson is concerned, this period while the nation’s reputation suffers a serious blow is the right time to remind people what good there is in America. “I feel like America is about innovation, creativity, and freedom,” he said. “Even thought the arts aren’t greatly supported here like they are in Europe, there’s a lot of cutting-edge stuff created in America because we feel free to express ourselves as a people.” Gustafson was thrilled when he recently received a phone call from the State Department asking him about taking Legends on an international tour to boost the national image. SSB’s strength is that it can follow tradition when it wants to — this season will also include the Romantic narrative ballet La Sylphide — but can also bring traditional technique to 21st-century works.
Gustafson’s office is tucked away at the edge of the company’s main studio. When I met him there, his dancers were rehearsing for the show’s opening piece, “Baseball,” and there wasn’t a tutu or a pair of tights in sight. The all-male cast wore baseball caps and catcher’s mitts. Under the direction of choreographer Peter Pucci they dodged, swerved, and slid across the floor as if stretching for home base. In Legends, Pucci’s tribute to the All-American sport will appear alongside Margo Sappington’s “Shed Your Skin,” set to the southern pop-rock sound of the Indigo Girls, and the urban pulse of “Rush Hour” from New York dance maker Robert Battle. The crowning jewel of the program is “Texas Fourth” — a piece that in some ways is the most traditional work in the show, and in others, perhaps the most radical.
Choreographer Agnes de Mille, daughter of the famed filmmaker Cecil B., premiered “Texas Fourth” in 1973. Though she came from a privileged background, de Mille’s work celebrates everyday working-class people, often focusing on ethnic and cultural minorities. She democratized the stage by bringing members of the public into her works; in an echo of the original production, SSB’s production will incorporate Westmont College cheerleaders and a host of other extras. “Texas Fourth” was last performed by American Ballet Theatre in 1976.
Its restoration after 30 years lying dormant is no small undertaking; ABT lent SSB the original costumes and sets, and Gula Pandi, the original ballet master for de Mille, came to town to stage the work. This production will feature guest appearances by Mel Tomlinson as the unicyclist and Randy Jones as the roper. After dancing with de Mille’s Heritage Dance Theater in the original production of “Texas Fourth,” Jones went on to join the Village People, establishing an international reputation for his image as a cowboy with ’70s sex appeal. The hope is that a video of SSB’s reconstruction of “Texas Fourth” will be added to the archives of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to stand alongside its grainy predecessor.
In essence, “Texas Fourth” is about as American as ballet gets. It celebrates America’s grassroots dance traditions, from Appalachia to the Bayou. “‘Texas Fourth’ is about jubilation, joy, and freedom,” according to Gustafson. In crafting American Legends, then, Gustafson is taking a page from de Mille’s book — selecting works that together celebrate and glorify the realities of modern America. It’s a bold move, even a radical one, in an era when America as a nation and American patriotism as a social attitude are under attack on so many fronts. One thing’s for sure: Legends is a far cry from La Sylphide. “I’m not sure there’s a pair of tights in the whole production, actually,” Gustafson admitted. Even for an edgy young ballet company, it smacks of revolution.
4•1•1 State Street Ballet performs American Legends at the Lobero Theatre, Saturday, September 16 at 2 and 8pm, and Sunday, September 17 at 2pm. For tickets, call 963‑0761 or visit lobero.com